Restaurants here serve up trend of buying -- and eating -- locally

Local on the menu

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Regina Hutson, 23, of Stanton Heights enjoys a lunch at Kaya, 2000 Smallman St. in the Strip District. The restaurant is part of the big Burrito Group, whose corporate chef, Bill Fuller, was an early supporter of buying from local families.
Click photo for larger image.

Not too long ago, you couldn't get a local tomato at a restaurant unless you grew it yourself and smuggled it in. Restaurateurs and chefs changed their menus once a season and bought trucked-in, out-of-state foods from food service companies. Farmers sold their crops directly to customers at farm stands and at retail markets or in big lots to wholesalers.

That's all changed. There is now a bridge that can link chefs and local farmers. It's a farmers cooperative, Penn's Corner Farm Alliance.

Pam Bryan, a certified organic farmer and the operator of Pucker Brush Farm in Indiana County, is the one-woman force who made this bridge possible. In 1999, she and two other organic farmers became impatient while waiting for a regional farmers market to develop.

"We looked at each other and just decided to do it," she said.

They recruited local growers, mostly organic or sustainable, and, with a start-up grant from the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, they formed the alliance, with 21 farms from the nine counties surrounding Pittsburgh now participating. The alliance sells mainly to restaurants, but it also sells to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and to specialty grocery markets.

Ms. Bryan credits Bill Fuller, corporate chef of big Burrito Group restaurants, which include Casbah, Soba, Umi, Eleven, Kaya and Mad Mex, for helping the group to flourish. When Penn's Corner was a fledgling project, Mr. Fuller was looking for a source of high-quality fresh produce. Taking the farmers in hand, he suggested crops to grow and offered business advice. He has been one of their biggest supporters.

There are about 50 restaurants and chefs in Western Pennsylvania buying fresh, local and seasonal products. Purchases can be as homespun as potatoes and onions or as upscale as micro greens and cheeses. These chefs are agents of change, because by working together with farmers, they allow their customers to experience local food in a way that they couldn't do in their own homes.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
For this meal at Kaya -- a pork quesadilla with cucumber aioli; a mesclun salad, and fried green tomatoes with kale -- the pork is from Cunningham Farms through Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, the fried green tomatoes are from Harvest Valley Farms, and the kale is from Penn's Corner.
Click photo for larger image.Farmer-chef partnerships

At Point Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze, chef Adam Manculich speaks for many of his colleagues.

"We stress freshness on our menu. When I buy produce from Penn's Corner, I call in my order, they pick it, and the next day it's delivered. Besides, buying local is the right thing to do."

At The Carlton, Downtown, chef Mark Swomley has the option of changing his menu daily.

"I buy produce in season from Penn's Corner, so I know we're buying from several farmers. In summer and fall, their crops are so beautiful and bountiful. I look forward to tomatoes and squashes of all kinds. And I know who I'm buying from. Costs are generally competitive. My micro greens and herbs, for instance, are less expensive than buying from a specialty grocer."

At Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley Heights, executive chef John King goes an extra couple of miles.

"Seventy-five percent of my food products are from Pennsylvania companies. I know what I'm getting and who I'm getting it from. Our lamb is from Washington County, produce from Penn's Corner. I get a Pennsylvania-made raw milk, organic white cheddar cheese that is terrific, and I buy specialty birds from Four Story Hill Farm, both from farms in the other end of the state. I like to support the Pennsylvania economy. I list sources on our menu and write an occasional column in the club newsletter to inform members of our buying practices from local markets."

Not as easy as it looks

Although Mr. Fuller was the first chef to take the lead in building the farmers alliance, he notes that he has responsibilities other than supporting the local farmer.

"In the past eight or nine years, there's been a lot of talk about the farmer-to-chef movement. It's on everybody's agenda. There's this sunny, warm image of farmers with bushel baskets of produce and that's great.

"But to be sustainable, the farmer-chef relationship depends on more than soft perceptions. It depends on quality, service, price, accessibility and dependability. Where it gets complicated is with the small farmers who are new at working with chefs. There are problems involved."

He said they occur on both sides of the aisle. Among the problems:

Farmers would rather take their produce to a one-stop, drop-off wholesaler than make multiple drops at kitchen doors, as restaurant kitchens can demand.

Farmers don't have the amount of food restaurants need in a season.

Local products can be expensive. Local garlic might go for 50 cents a head, but Mr. Fuller said he can buy 30 pounds of Chinese garlic for $15.

Chefs can be too busy to carry through on orders. Farmers have to be prepared for unreturned phone calls and the occasional temper tantrum from a chef when the order isn't as expected.

Restaurants must keep their bottom line in mind. "If a farmer calls with one load of ripe zucchini, it's not worth my time to buy it. But if a farmer calls me two months out and says, 'I'll have 'X' amount of zucchini for 'X' amount of time, and is there any way we can do business?' -- well, now you're talking."

Last year big Burrito bought $500,000 of local produce, about 18 percent of which was purchased within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. That included lamb from Washington County, dairy products from Marburger in Evans City and cured meats from Parma in the Strip. Suppliers are listed on the restaurant menus.

Next time you dip into a basket of Mad Mex corn chips and salsa, think about this: The corn was raised by organic farmer Ron Gargasz in Volant. It is milled at Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg. The flour is made into chips by Reyna Foods at their plant in New Kensington.

Kicking it up a notch

Give a big smiley face to Eat'n Park. When it comes to buying local, it is a role model for chain restaurants and food service.

"We noticed a trend toward buying local a few years ago," said J. Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of food and beverage. "We met with local farmers and asked them to grow products for us. But because we can't have multiple people delivering to our doors, we buy all of our produce from local [food supply] purveyors who, in turn, buy from our farming network. We also work with Pennsylvania producers for meats and with small local dairies."

Mr. Broadhurst is pleased with the results. "This system has been good for us on many levels. We have significantly better produce, and the savings in freight costs from, say, Florida, is considerable. We're supporting our local communities. Is it more work? Absolutely. But no question about it. It's worth it."

Next time you have a meal at Pittsburgh's favorite family restaurant, check out the new table tent over there by the salt and pepper. It proudly lists the local farms where your food was produced.

Restaurants Lucca (in Oakland), Vivo (Bellevue), Bona Terra (Sharpsburg), Le Pommier Bistro (South Side) and Cafe Zao (Downtown) are just some of the many other places where chefs buy fresh and local. By dining at businesses that support local farmers, you are getting the freshest, best-tasting food, contributing to a strong local economy and helping preserve our Pennsylvania landscape.

Pittsburgh knows how to do it.


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.


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